11/26/2012 01:02 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

The Radical Middle?

Now that all the campaigning is over and the ceaseless ads have finally ceased (thank God!), here's question worth pondering: What happened to the middle in America? And how is that reflected, not just in our politics, but in our pews?

Not so long ago in this campaign it seemed as though religion might be a kind of dividing line, at least at the national level. The interesting rapprochement between Catholics and conservative Evangelical Christians emerged as a topic of conversation back when former Senator Rick Santorum was still a viable candidate, and has been more recently the subject of slightly backhanded comment in the slightly bizarre case of Dinesh D'Souza's disgraced exit from the presidency of King's College.

But it does not seem evident that this alliance emerged as a clear force in shaping the political conversation in the midst of an election that, in many other respects, seems to have yet more deeply divided the nation into two Americas.

Perhaps the idea that religion constituted a significant difference between the political parties was itself oversold. An interesting tally by the New York Times showed that the Republicans managed to mention "God" 95 times in their convention, while the Democrats did the divine shout-out 85 times. The difference was more clear on words like "faith" (31 Republican mentions, 21 Democratic) and "church" (24 Republican mentions, only 3 Democratic). Even so, stereotypes to the contrary it's not clear that we have only one party that takes religion seriously.

It may instead be that religion has followed the trend of our politics to become simply more polarized. Consider this amazing graphic from Randall Munroe, the creator of the webcomic xkcd. Drawing on data collected by Howard Rosenthal and Keith Poole (available at, Munroe's depiction of the political river flowing through American history makes profoundly clear the collapse of the middle in our politics over the last 20 years or so. (In Munroe's graphic you can see it as the thinning of the light-colored red and blue, representing centrist in both the House and Senate.) The representation depicts an observation made by Rosenthal and Poole: "Polarization in the House and Senate is now at the highest level since the end of Reconstruction. Right; and not just in the House and Senate, but throughout the body politic.

Do we really imagine America's faith communities have not followed a similar pattern? In the simplest terms, the question is whether conservative churches are tending to take more conservative positions, and whether progressive churches are tending to take more liberal positions.

In fact there seems to be a sort of cognitive dissonance happening in this arena. It's easy to find churches (I'm going to stick to my own Christian tradition for this argument) making clear their positions on matters of the day. Check out the websites of your own denomination, and you will pretty quickly find comprehensive position statements on a range of divisive issues -- abortion, the death penalty, the rights of same-sex people to marry, assisted suicide and so on.

Of course, all of these are matters of importance to anyone of faith, and one of the major functions of a faith community is to translate the ideas of faith into the terms of real-world concerns. But there seems little question that churches are, in general, following the trend of the rest of our culture. We seem to be less and less places for people with different minds and different hearts to find common ground in a shared hope. Instead we seem to be moving in the same ideological direction as everything else around us -- toward the edges and away from the middle.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that the mainline churches are in crisis. Their strength came exactly from the middle -- the middle class, the moderate in politics, the middle way; and their high point came exactly when moderate politics and the American middle class were in the ascendancy. The middle class is dramatically shrinking, moderate politics are suspected on both the right and the left as lacking in sufficient fervor.

But the cognitive dissonance comes in when you consider this basic point: Mainline churches are dramatically lacking in young people; and yet studies show that the millennial generation, albeit generally favorable to the sort of progressive ideals these churches now articulate in the public square, is simply less ideological and less interested in the mixture of religion and politics. A major 2009 study by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank, showed that nearly 60 percent of the 18 to 24 year-olds surveyed agreed with the statement "Our country has gone too far in mixing politics and religion and forcing religious values on people." Folks in my church usually read that as a coded critique of conservative Evangelicals, conveniently overlooking the fact that it's a statement just as easily applied to us.

So we need young people, and we're trying to attract them with our positions. And we're confused that they don't come, because after all what we're offering seems to agree with the way they see the world. The part we seem to be missing is that those millennials seem to think the church should be about something else -- that it should not be spending so much time on either side of the issues, but on other matters.

Here's a last point to ponder. As the middle class collapses, moderate politics gets shouted down by the extremists on both sides, and the mainline churches decline, guess which single religious group looks most like the average American view on such a contentious issue as abortion? Based on data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the two groups that look most like the aggregate U.S. population on this question are Roman Catholics and -- are you ready? -- Muslims. Could it be that the place of the middle in our politics and our faith, a place vacated by the old Protestant traditions, is being taken up by the most recent arrivals to America?

In my tradition it's often said that the place Christians are meant to stand is with the people who are the most downtrodden, the least befriended, the most disenfranchised. It is just possible that, in the years to come, those people will be the few left where we once were -- in the middle class in our straitened economy, the moderate voices in our contentious politics? Or will other traditions take that role instead?